Hostility Towards Evolution

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If you haven’t already, it’s time to face the facts: evolution happened. Or rather, it’s still happening—humanity has been aware for hundreds of years now that our species and all others evolved from older, more primitive ancestors. Granted, evolution has not historically benefitted from a wealth of scientific evidence, but with the advent of modern scientific tools such as DNA sequencing, along with an ever increasing catalogue of ancient fossils, we can safely conclude the direction in which all the evidence points. Since the time of Charles Darwin, who himself admitted that his hypothesis lacked sufficient empirical verification, the evidence for evolution has become so overwhelmingly conclusive that the scientific community now almost unanimously regards it as a fact of nature.

Despite this, however, there still exists an astonishing and unwarranted controversy surrounding the education of evolution, particularly in certain areas of the United States, which leads to a significant number of people finishing school or university having fallen frustratingly short of scientific literacy. Many  institutions and individuals, including politicians and teachers, hold a steadfast belief that evolution by means of Darwinian natural selection should not be taught in the biology classroom, and despite how easy and enjoyable such a belief is to satirise and ridicule, I think we’re in need of a more earnest approach when it comes to debunking the worryingly absurd arguments that such people are regularly vocalising.

“Just a theory”?

One of the most appalling of misunderstandings I regularly encounter, and the first I wish to briefly debunk, is the prominent idea that “evolution is merely a theory”. The emphasis here is usually not on the word “theory”, but rather the word “merely”, as if use of the word “theory” implies a sense of uncertainty or illegitimacy. On the contrary, a scientific theory is not some kind of trivial guesswork, rather it is the result of the continuous and rigorous testing of a hypothesis, which is formulated to “explain a group of facts or phenomena in the natural world and repeatedly confirmed through experiment or observation” (www.dictionary.com). In fact, labelling a scientific idea as a “theory” is about as complimentary as it gets. So when deniers decide to throw out this genius proposition that evolution is “only a theory”, an appropriate response could be “well . . . yes. But gravity is also only a theory, and I don’t see you throwing yourself out of any windows and attempting to fly because of it.”

A System Of Belief

With that cleared up, I’d like to address another argument that can lead to quite contentious debate. Read the following statement and assess to what extent you agree with its premise:

Science is just as much of a belief system as any other religion, and so it’s only fair that evolution should be taught alongside creationism in schools.

I should hope that you can immediately recognise the problem with such an assertion, however if you find yourself somewhat in agreement, I must make something crystal clear: The scientific method is not a religious belief system. Why? Well, the crucial difference between religiosity and science is that one worldview adapts in light of evidence, whereas the other adapts evidence in light of contradictions with its pre-existing notions. Science embraces that which challenges its ideas and recognises its ignorance. Religion ignores that which challenges its ideas and breeds ignorance. The underlying difference here is incidentally that which makes the scientific community to me so respectable and trustworthy; its ability and willingness to change its mind about everything.

A Matter Of Pride?

So why is it that the simple ideas of natural selection, speciation and common ancestry attract such high levels of hostility? What is it about being cousins with monkeys and chimpanzees that so damages one’s pride? I think there are two explanations:

  1. Evolution is incompatible with creationism.
  2. Common ancestry removes our traditional sense of animalistic individuality.

As for the first point, clearly the theory of evolution and the account of creation given in the book of Genesis are incompatible. Not only does the history of evolved life require a time frame significantly larger than that which is implied by scripture, but also nature is riddled with all kinds of phenomena which not only can’t be explained by intelligent design, but can only be explained by evolution. Take, for example, vestigial traits. These interesting organs and structures are features which no longer serve the purpose which they did at some point in an organism’s ancestral past. Not only are these oddities present in a boundless variety of life on Earth, but they are also remarkably common. An example with which you will surely be familiar is the experience of goose bumps, which occur in animals in response to coldness or shock because animals with thick hair can simultaneously insulate themselves and appear physically more imposing when it stands on end, which helps them to survive. Humans, however, are no longer hairy enough to be able to utilise this trick (you can still see it in action if you ever scare your cat, though), so goosebumps have become an entirely useless trait, and I find it to be a rather unconvincing hypothesis that God designed humans with a host of needless features that happen to perfectly correspond with results you would expect to see from natural selection, and which serve no purpose whatsoever other than to confuse evolutionary biologists.

Regarding point number two, there seems to be a reluctance to accept that humanity is but a cog in the clockwork of biology, because at face value this can be interpreted as somewhat of a depressing reality. This needn’t be the case, though! Yes, it does appear that humans are not quite as special and unique amongst the animal kingdom as we once liked to believe, but if you ask me, understanding our true place as a species within the vastness of nature is an incredibly humbling experience. You, I, and all 7 billion human beings on this planet are related not only to each other, but to every bird, tree, whale, flower, spider and lion that also inhabits this rock of ours. How anybody could see this as an distressing realisation is a complete mystery to me.

Summary

The declaration of germ theory, quantum theory, gravitational theory, and atomic theory as scientific facts is seldom met with any kind of antagonism, and certainly never with anything quite as extreme as that which so routinely and bitterly challenges evolutionary theory. Whatever the reason, be it religious or not, the hostility towards such a fundamental scientific principle can’t go on. Evolution is not only vitally important to understanding our own selves, the history of earthly life, the nature of antibiotic resistance and more, it is also exceptionally fascinating, and no child or adult should ever be deprived of learning of its wonders. If you ask me, in a world so infected with malice and greed, so occupied with egomania and separation, so divided by politics, religion and class, we are in desperate need of something to remind us that we are all, in essence, one.

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26 comments

  1. Nicely done. I don’t know what changes if we accept evolution. The differences between man and other known animals are stark and sufficient for feeling “special”. When was the last time a monkey went to the moon without human aid?…As for creationism, or any reading of Genesis as a detailed physical account of earth history, there are simply too many problems. Believe in the Bible, I do, but believe a worthy message, not details that correspond to our physical earth history.

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  2. Amazing read! I think people who reject the theory of evolution either don’t completely understand it, or are just so devoted to their creationist religions that they brush off anything that does not fit into ‘God’s word’ in the Bible. The amount of people who fit into these categories in THIS day and age, with all of our technological advancements, confuses me. Anyways, this was a very good article 🙂

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  3. I think as much as a hurt pride keeps the fight going is fear. Mainly, fear of losing one’s worldview, with a dash of fear of introspection. For those that believe in the literal creation of Genesis, the evidence of evolution would then force them to answer the question, “If this part of the bible is wrong, what other parts are?” It doesn’t just put the idea of creation to question, but the entire base of their worldview. In that position, one had to ask themselves what they truly believe in. Some do and decide that they need to really read the bible and device for themselves which pays they believe in and why, and I’m all for that, but many others just simply refuse to look at the evidence and attempt to understand the science, finding it easier or simpler to stick with a story that no longer makes sense, given the evidence.

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  4. The major reason people have difficulty in accepting the strong evidence that you put forth on your sites, regardless how rational and logical it may be, is because people have been taught that denying their faith-based religious beliefs, could result in spending eternity in hell being continuously tortured by fire – the most excruciating pain known to mankind. I submit that the major religions could not have thrived without a threat of this proportion. Without any positive evidence, I sense the majority of believer worship and praise.God more because they fear ending up in hell, more than any other reason.

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  5. Really concisely put, I had never realized the disregard for the word “theory” that is quite distressing. The school systems in Canada are absolutely horrible, all kids and teenagers are taught at one level. There is no higher level classes, nothing provided for intellectuals. All classes are taught at the level that one with a learning disability can pass easily. Now, being in highschool, and one of the (very few) kids actually interested in learning as much as I can, it is a huge struggle to get through without being laughably under stimulated. I have just about completeled all highschool… Two years early I hate seeing kids who are wanting to learn and do stuff pushed to the side and completely ignored because “we don’t need any help with our class”
    Anyways on the religion front, would we not have a much more peaceful society if ideas weren’t immediately perceived inimical? You can’t be hurt idea can hurt by considering an idea. Being taught as a child that science is not to be trusted, because it’s merely another farcical belif system contradicting one’s own is tragic.

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  6. Do you think that it’s pride? That people simply can’t accept they are “only” animals or is it more akin to fear. Having spent their lives being told the invisible man in the sky thinks they are special and that they lose this eternal father figure that they’ve been clinging to like a security blanket?

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  7. The invisible man in the sky is telling them everything is going to be okay, because it’s all part of his plan.
    But the invisible man in the sky is perfect. No bad thing is attributable to him, because he gave the people free will, and that’s all their fault. (except weather and stuff, maybe theists can attribute that to science)
    But then the invisible man doesn’t have complete control over everything. Because he gave the people free will.
    So that means he doesn’t control if anything is going to be okay.
    Because he gave people free will.
    So really, no one should feel that they get that sort of safety from god.
    Unless he is totally omnipotent, and there isn’t free will, but then why would someone think they are safe under the protection of someone who controls terrorism and causes leukemia in children?

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  8. Hi would you mind sharing which blog platform you’re working with?
    I’m looking to start my own blog soon but I’m having a difficult time choosing between BlogEngine/Wordpress/B2evolution and
    Drupal. The reason I ask is because your design and style seems
    different then most blogs and I’m looking for something unique.
    P.S My apologies for being off-topic but I had to ask!

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  9. I enjoyed the article, please keep writing. You seem quite intelligent and I appreciate the calm way that you express yourself on the subject matter that you address.

    Sadly, many if not most of the evolution deniers out there have closed minds and are only interested in the same dogma they were indoctrinated with as children, and I fear your words fall on deaf ears there.

    My personal philosophy is thatbif there is a god he/she/it does not lie. This universe is not some kind of sadistic trap where if you believe the evidence in the workd around you, you will burn in a pit of fire for eternity…including, one assumes after the heat death of the universe.

    Keep up the good work. If nothing else, you are doing the human race a great service by upholding truth versus nontruth.

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  10. Ideas are fine, but without an example that proves them, ideas are just ideas. The defense of evolution you give here is devoid of examples.

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    1. There are many sites online (or, if you are old school, in books and magazines) where you can find numerous examples if you spend a little bit of time looking. You can even watch some excellent video coverage of the subject matter on YouTube if you don’t want to read about it.

      If you are really interested in the subject matter I’d hope you’d take the time to inform yourself, instead of complaining that the blog isn’t spoon feeding you enough. Do some research on the subject matter; you’ll be the better for your effort.

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  11. Everything you talk about is vague, and not very particular. Which vestigial organs? In any case, the loss of a function does not prove evolution’s ability to gain a new one.

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  12. Arguing, that something is useless, is an argument from ignorance. What if they really have a useful function? That means, that the “gap” in your knowledge was covered up by the concept of a vestigial trait. I’m sorry to inform you, that with new discoveries, the number of completely useless traits is going down, not up, so that gap is closing.

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    1. Hi Peter, a vestigial trait is not one which serves no purpose; many vestigial traits such as the coccyx serve many useful functions today. A vestigial trait is simply something which serves a purpose today that is different from the purpose it once served in an organism’s ancestral history.

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      1. I’m not sure, what a coccyx is, but if it has a function, then it’s not as good of an argument against God. It might be a good argument for evolution, though. It depends on the particulars of the example You chose.

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    2. This post is more about defending evolution than trying to disprove God, hence me saying “[w]hatever the reason, be it religious or not, the hostility towards such a fundamental scientific principle can’t go on” in the last paragraph.

      I do think some examples of vestigial traits make the God hypothesis unconvincing, but I agree that they alone are not an absolute disproof.

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      1. youtube .com/watch?v=P-H4X2b7x7Q
        Except for his point on big bang theory, I happen to largely agree with this guy.

        Now, I’m curious: does this qualify as hostility towards evolution?
        (I’m not expecting you to watch the whole thing, skimming through it in two minutes or less is fine.)

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  13. I live in the upper Midwestern United States, and my high school biology teacher taught evolution in an interesting way. He made the claim that whether or not you believe in creationism or evolution, both perspectives require a “leap of faith.”

    Early in this article you admitted that there has historically been a lack evidence for evolution, but that this lack of evidence is being filled with modern technologies and more archaeological research. So, my question for you is, do you think that the “leap of faith” for accepting evolution is growing smaller, and do you think it will ever grow small enough to be considered none?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts and speculations. Please, I beg of you, keep writing and making videos!

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  14. I am new (to Cosmic Skeptic) reader but will add you to my list of daily reading. You might find this clip interesting – taken from Sandwalk by Larry Moran. It speaks to your point regarding “system of belief” –

    “Imagine what would happen after a giant meteor strike that wipes out everyone except for a small native tribe in the Andes that had no contact with other people before the apocalypse. All books and all knowledge will be destroyed.

    Ten thousand years later there will be science books and they’ll be pretty much the same as the ones we have now because people will simply rediscover the basic truths of nature. There might be religious books but they won’t be anything like the holy books we have now because the people will have invented entirely new gods. That’s the difference between science and religion. “

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    1. “Ten thousand years later there will be science books and they’ll be pretty much the same as the ones we have now because people will simply rediscover the basic truths of nature. There might be religious books but they won’t be anything like the holy books we have now because the people will have invented entirely new gods. That’s the difference between science and religion.”

      I recall Penn Jillette said something similar, and I think it bears a little critical scrutiny.

      It’s philosophically crude to suggest that the “basic truths of nature” are just out there waiting to be discovered, the way European mountaineers discovered snow-capped mountains in equatorial Africa. The scientific method developed in a certain era in Western civilization, and it bears the hallmarks of that era’s ideas about the subject-object distinction, the meaning of things like observation and measurement, and the difference between describing something and explaining it.

      The reason we favor materialistic, naturalistic, reductionist approaches to empirical inquiry is because the language thereof was developed by a colonialist, male-dominated culture with its own political and economic motivations and biases. It’s not so obvious to me that in a civilization with a completely different mindset toward nature, industry, domination, and meaning, the exact same conception of scientific inquiry would develop any more than the same languages or religions would develop.

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  15. I affirm the validity of species evolution 100%, common ancestry, molecules-to-man, the whole shebang. But I think there’s something hypocritical about characterizing evolution (or science itself) as some sort of systematized atheism, then wondering why there’s so much pushback from religious fundamentalists about evolution. If our aim is to get schools to teach evolution, and it should be, then we might have to moderate our rhetoric.

    Evolutionary biology, as you say, is an important and fascinating subject. And it’s too important to be used as a weapon in a culture war that’s less about science and more about imposing conformity of opinion and establishing unquestionable authority.

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